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ZORRO RIDES AGAIN
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GOVERNMENT AGENTS VS. PHANTOM LEGION (1951). 12 Chapter Republic Serial. Directed by Fred C. Brannon. When trucks are being hijacked for the important government parts they carry, former military spy Hal Duncan (stalwart Walter Reed) – who now heads his own trucking business – is called in to lead the investigation. The stolen parts are sold to foreign governments by a mastermind who talks to his gang members from behind a two-way mirror and is a member of the trucking association. The gang members take pills to fake their deaths and thereby temporarily elude the authorities. Duncan's lovely assistant Kay Roberts is played by the pretty but colorless Mary Ellen Kaye. This is a more than satisfactory late Republic serial with some generally good if occasionally recycled cliffhangers. The credit music is memorable, and Tom Steele adds some literal and figurative punch as [more than] one of the bad guys. A highlight is a two-fisted fight on top of a speeding truck. There isn't much of a “legion,” however, phantom or otherwise.

Dennis Moore in
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The Mysterious Mr. M

MYSTERIOUS MR. M (1946). 13 Chapter Universal Serial. Directed by Lewis D. Collins and Vernon Keays. The last serial produced by Universal studios, The Mysterious Mr. M is better than their usual offering, although still not quite in the top-rank of cliffhangers. A hood named Anthony Waldron (Edmund MacDonald) is after an invention that will allow subs to be as “large as an ocean liner.” He's hoping to pin his crimes and murders on a mysterious figure that is a product of his own invention, “Mr. M.” But before long a certain unknown person contacts him claiming to be the real Mr. M – and expects him to do his bidding. In the meantime, Waldron uses a formula, hynodrene, to hypnotize both good and bad guys into aiding his cause [the word “hypnotry is used instead of “hypnotism.”] One of the victims is Jim Farrell, who later dies, causing his brother Grant (a grimly competent Dennis Moore) to track down those responsible with the aid of Shirley Clinton (Pamela Blake) and others. Two of Waldron's gang, Derek and Marina Lamont (Danny Morton; Jane Randolph), sidle up to Waldron's rich grandmother in an attempt to control her fortune. There are some decent cliffhangers along the way, making this a more than passable time-waster.

MYSTERY MOUNTAIN
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Sid Saylor, Ken Maynard, Verna Hillie

MYSTERY MOUNTAIN. 12 chapter Mascot serial. Directed by Otto Brower and Breezy Eason. Ken Williams (Ken Maynard) is called in when Frank Blayden, a construction company supervisor, reports that someone calling himself The Rattler is trying to sabotage his efforts to make a railroad tunnel through Iron Mountain. Blayden, and then Williams, initially suspect pretty Jane Corwin (Verna Hillie) of being the Rattler, until her own father is killed by the villain and she winds up running the Corwin Transportation Company herself. The Rattler uses darts that actually rattle to send messages and to poison people. In a development that reminds one of Mascot's Hurricane Express, he uses life-like masks to masquerade as several of the other characters, including Williams. Even though everyone eventually knows about these masks, in each chapter Williams, Jane and the others are nevertheless convinced they know the identity of the Rattler and are always wrong [the viewer doesn't learn who he is until the very end of the serial]. The Rattler, who has a very good reason for wanting to halt construction of the tunnel, generally wears a black cloak and hat as well as a disguise that consists of a fake nose, glasses and mustache like you'd pick up in a five and ten cent store! Despite no real musical score, the serial manages to work up a great deal of suspense, has a few scenes inside hidden passages inside the mountain, and is rather entertaining if not quite top-notch. The actual cliffhangers are nothing much to speak of, but there is one clever bit with Williams pretending to be his own effigy to outwit the bad guys. Ken Maynard is a likable hero, even if he lacks John Wayne's star charisma [Wayne himself starred in three Mascot cliffhanger productions]. Verna Hillie really classes up this production. She is completely convincing as one of serials' bravest and strongest heroines, a fine actress who gives it one hundred per cent and is rather good-looking besides. Sid Saylor is fun as Breezy Baker, a reporter who tries to track down the identity of the Rattler and is nearly killed several times during the show. Ken Maynard's horse “Tarzan” tries to outdo Trigger and helps bring about the unmasking of the Rattler! This is fun.

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CANADIAN MOUNTIES VS ATOMIC INVADERS (1953). 12 chapter Republic Serial. Director: Franklin Adreon. The foreign spy Marloff – also known as “M” -- wants to build a base from which to fire rockets at American cities, but some pesky settlers are determined to farm the nearby land and he isn't having any of it. Along with two henchmen, Marloff tries to wipe out the Mountie Dan Roberts and lady investigator Kay Conway as they become increasingly suspicious. This is a very entertaining, swiftly-paced serial with a lot of speeding vehicles and well-done back projection, as well as a few effective non-cheat cliffhangers; one sequence with a fall into a mine or well is pretty much muffed, however. The winter woods and virtually everything else is strictly on the sound stage or from stock footage, but the serial still plays. There are a bunch of adorable bear cubs who make a mess out of a cabin, as well as some beautiful, leaping reindeer, but the wild dogs that nearly chew the life out of Roberts are not quite so cuddly. Marloff masquerades very credibly as a “tetched” trapper named Smoky on more than one occasion, illustrating the actor's versatility. Not bad at all.

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PANTHER GIRL OF THE KONGO (1955). 12 Chapter Republic Serial. Directed by Franklin Adreon. An acceptable if mediocre serial that takes place in the Utanga district of a back lot Africa and concerns the activities of a nefarious doctor and his hired guns who want to scare the natives away from a secret diamond mine; they create actual “devil beasts” to do the job. These giant critters frighten the bejeesus out of the superstitious natives but only seem to excite the curiosity of heroine Joan Evans (Phyllis Coates) – aka the Panther Girl -- and hero Larry Sanders (Myron Healey), who are determined to trap or kill one. Although the monsters start out as wriggling little scorpions, by the time they've grown to the size of automobiles due to the absorption of some liquid hormone they somehow resemble lobsters. The Panther Girl describes them as “huge, overgrown craw fish.” The monsters are brought not so vividly to life by use of back projection or by big prop claws that grab at people's limbs. They are rarely in the same shot as the humans who hunt them or upon which they presumably feed. On one occasion a live lobster interacts with a tiny prop camera and tripod standing in for the real ones employed by the Panther Girl. The Panther Girl is so named because she was blamed for the presence of a blank panther in a village and is now suspected of using black magic to create the Devil Beasts. Whatever its flaws and stock footage (mostly from Jungle Girl), this is fun and often exciting. The villains are persistent and well-played and there's an excellent score by R. Dale Butts.

ZORRO'S BLACK WHIP
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George J. Lewis and Linda Stirling

ZORRO'S BLACK WHIP. Republic. Directed by Spencer Bennet and Wallace Grissell. This serial depicts the battle between the hooded Black Whip and corrupt men who are against the crusade for statehood, feeling this will impede their criminal activities and their hold over the county. When the original Black Whip, newspaper editor David Meredith, is killed, his sister Barbara Meredith (an adequate Linda Stirling) dons the outfit and takes over for her brother. An undercover government agent, Vic Gordon (George J. Lewis) who is nearly lynched at one point, assists and is occasionally suspected of being, the Whip. There is no actual mention of “Zorro” in the serial itself; Zorro was used for dramatic and commercial purposes and there are similarities between him and the Black Whip. The cliffhangers include a runaway wagon that dives over a cliff, a non-cheat bit involving a descending pitchfork and a thrown saddle, and an excellent sequence involving flaming oil on mine tracks that nearly fries our heroine. Not top-notch, but fast-paced and entertaining and certainly worth a look.

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JUNGLE GIRL (1941). 15 chapter Republic serial. Directed by William Witney and John English. Although this takes a while to build up steam, it is easy to see why Jungle Girl is considered one of the better serials. A competent if bland Frances Gifford is cast as Nyoka, daughter of a scientist who works in Africa in “Cairobi.” But the good doctor is murdered and replaced by his evil twin, Bradley Meredith (Trevor Bardette), who was in jail for years and of whose existence Nyoka is unaware. Not only do Nyoka and her pals have to contend with this doppelganger and his cronies, they are also consistently attacked by Shamba (Frank Lackteen), a real bitch of a witch doctor who wants to take over the village and fervently wishes that Nyoka and all whites were out of his hair. Nyoka is aided by pilot Jack Stanton (Tom Neal), his buddy Curly Rogers (Eddie Acuff) and a plucky little native boy, Kimbu (Tommy Cook). Curly is annoying, unfunny comedy relief at first but he proves his mettle and throws himself into the fisticuffs as well as anyone. He's even willing to sacrifice himself at one point to save others, although he's saved from doing so. Gerald Mohr is appropriately cast as 'Slick' Latimer, a nasty associate of the evil Meredith who wants to get his hands on some diamonds; Mohr played “slick” roles in everything from Angry Red Planet to Funny Girl. Mohr is okay in this and Trevor Bardette gives a very good dual performance. Although he's not black [indeed most of the “African” natives seem white or Hispanic], Tommy Cook makes a believable and appealing Kimbu. Tom Neal was best-known for his role in the low-budget thriller Detour as well as for the headlines he generated when he and Franchot Tone [Joan Crawford's second husband] got into a fist fight outside a club over the scarlet starlet Barbara Peyton. “Good” native Mananga is played by Kenneth Turrell, who was also Jess the butler in Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman (1959).

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Frank Lackteen as evil Shamba

Jungle Girl is interesting in that there are cliffhangers within many of the chapters and not just at the end; character-in-danger scenes that are resolved before the chapter's end, giving the serial a great deal of action and more thrills than usual. Nyoka rescues Kimbu from a hungry alligator in one scene, and saves a dangling, upside down Tom Neal from an equally voracious lion in another. The cliffhangers themselves include rushing water that nearly sweeps our heroes out of a hole in a cliff; the ignition of oil to create a fiery river trap; and deadly gas that seeps out of a fissure to permeate a tomb. Two cliffhangers are particular stand outs. In one the floor of another entombed chamber slides open to reveal a deep rectangular well; and a big block used to crush rocks on a conveyor belt nearly puts paid to Tom Neal. A great deal of suspense is generated by these scenes as well as a bit when a gun is attached to the stick shift of the plane and fires at a very inopportune moment. [A spiked platform used in one cliffhanger was also employed in King of the Royal Mounted.] The final chapters of Jungle Girl as the bag of diamonds gets shunted around from character to character proceed at a breakneck pace and are packed with enough action and thrills to satisfy any serial devotee.

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TIGER WOMAN [aka Perils of the Darkest Jungle]. 12 Chapter Republic Serial. Directed by Spencer Bennet and Wallace Grisell. A mysterious white “Tiger Woman” (Linda Stirling) rules over the natives [who are not black but probably South American] in a mythical land but the gal has her problems. Although she has sold oil rights to the Inter-Ocean Oil company, some nasty devils hope to get the oil for themselves and aren't afraid to murder anyone who gets in their way. Furthermore, these nasty folk suspect that the Tiger Woman is actually heiress Rita Arnold, who crash-landed with her father in the same area when she was just a child. Their plan is to bump off the real Rita, then substitute an actress who can claim the fortune for them. In other words, these guys are complete creeps, and you certainly don't mind when they get violently knocked off even as they try to kill Rita, the natives who worship her, and hero Allan Saunders (Allan Lane), who represents Inter-Ocean Oil. Stirling isn't much of an actress in this, and Lane – who also starred in King of the Royal Mounted – is rather bland [even though many years later he did a great job doing the voice of the talking horse “Mr. Ed”]. However, Stirling throws herself into her fight scenes – pity there are no cat-fights – and there's plenty of action in the serial. Memorable cliffhangers include a drop into a fiery pit in an underground cavern; a bunch of deadly falling stalactites; a boat that encounters a roaring waterfall; and a plunging elevator cage with an unconscious Tiger Woman lying on the floor and Saunders dangling for dear life on the under-carriage. Duncan Renaldo is fine as the head bad guy, and Joseph Dubin's score is also good. Tiger Woman's outfit is pretty silly, with cat's ears and a short skirt in the “jungle” [California, of course]. This is a pretty standard serial in some ways, although it's not badly done. Like many other serials, the suspense is minimized because you know who the villains are and what they're up to from the first.

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